Generating, Simulating, Interrogating: A Computational Design Thinking Framework

Thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Science in Computational Design at Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture (College of Fine Arts). Accepted by advisory committee December 15, 2017.

Author Scott Parker Donaldson
Principal Advisor Daniel Cardoso Llach
Advisor Molly Wright Steenson
Advisor Stuart Candy


Computational design is often depicted as an instrument for analysis or production, but it is also a space in which to explore and create new ways of working and thinking. This thesis explores how, through critically engaged practice, designers working computationally are uniquely able to envision and work toward desirable futures, challenging a techno-utopian status quo and projecting humane alternatives. What computational design methods, approaches, and strategies can help to bring about these desirable futures?

Through primary research involving interviews with computational design practitioners, developing interactive software prototypes as investigative tools, and conducting design workshops, I investigate various modes of working computationally. Building on this research, I propose a three-part framework that synthesizes high-level approaches to computational design work. The first component, generating, reveals how computation enables the designer to work at various levels of abstraction, navigating large possibility spaces. The second, simulating, provides a frame for envisioning and modeling potential interventions in complex systems. Finally, interrogating, drawing from both Schön’s ‘reflective practice’ and Wark’s ‘hacker ethos,’ encourages computational designers to critically question their tools and practices in order to discover new ways of working and thinking. I conclude by discussing potential embodiments of this framework in computational design education.

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